The 1950s' : Pivotal years for the wine culture ?
When I recently put my hands on a few old prints and documents, I realized how our memory and knowledge of a relatively recent past is elusive. What is true for general History (idealization of the past) is also true for things related to wine. Here are a few reminders to put the wine landscape into perspective.
Take the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy : The group, born in 1934 in Nuits-Saint-Georges really came in view in 1950. After the war, the wine region was economically in shambles like much of France after WW2 and the ceremonial event and gatherings at the Clos Vougeot were initiated in 1950 as a desperate publicity stunt to pump new blood and energy into a morose wine scene. Imagine : For different reasons going from the financial crisis of 1929 to the lost of export markets during the war, the vineyard surface in the Cote D'Or Departement went down from 17 000 hectares in 1920 to 9000 in the late 40s', with woods and fallow land taking back a large chunk of respectable terroirs.
This was a time when estate bottlings were rare or were just beginning to develop. The everyday wine that the french drank was a 9° "thirst wine", the cheapest sort was even dubbed "piquette" meaning that it was on its way to vinegar. Plus, in 1950, red wine made only 43% of the total french output, against more than 70% today. And even though the french downed then 150-liters-a-year per capita, there was mostly none of this self-consciousness found today among wine consumers and estate owners. Most vignerons were farmers who made wine like their ancestors did in the past centuries, and their enology knowledge was purely empirical experience. But the wines made in these traditional farms were often good, and foremost always true...
That era was outstanding for many reasons. While the french were slowly recovering, important world issues were fought in the background and the cold war was starting. The Americans were quite innocent in matter of wine, and the thousands of them who came in France to stay after WW2 were introduced to wine and good food. Life was laid back, affordable and Paris was beautiful. Some Americans like Norman Mailer even complained about the ensuing rising prices, "All the fucking Americans are here” he wrote then to a friend. There were quite a few wine lovers and advocates of french food (or soon to be) in the lot. Among them, Art Buchwald the humorist, Ambassador David Bruce, Ernest Hemingway (back in Paris even before the last german soldier left), Richard Olney (who would later point the Domaine Tempier to Kermit Lynch), and a certain Julia Child who came along with her husband who was working for the USIS, an American Information Agency, and who said about herself that she had "zero interest in the stove" before landing here.
David Bruce the US Ambassador to France and his wife Evangeline [picture on left] loved their french life. I guess that this Burgundy episode was among their good memories. He first came to England during WW2 to head the OSS there, sneaked into Paris as an OSS Colonel (with Hemingway at his side) as the germans we leaving, and was then Chief of the Economic Cooperation Administration to France and later promoted Ambassador there. He would later assist in the transformation of the OSS into the CIA, and help implement the Marshall Plan. A friend of Jean Monnet, he pushed for the Renaissance of Europe, but the dire economic situation in France helped fuel radicals and the Soviet Union was active behind the scene. Paris was a stage where good life, plots and spies made a cinematographic picture. The French 4th Republic being a weak spot in Western Europe for the soviet designs, counteractions like the PSB [Pdf] (see PsyWar-Psychological Strategy Board, page 25) were set up in these years. Exciting and thrilling years.
Incredible scene: real-time demonstration of a chemical spraying-unit in a winery...indoors! And I'm not even sure that they took the precaution of making sure to use water and not the real thing : people were unaware of the health risks at the time. The early 50's were times when an unabated optimism made people think that different technical prowesses would make rivers of wine flow from newly built wineries. New chemical products to prevent or cure the diseases in the vineyard seemed to open the way to high yields and more wine, and cooperatives were sprouting like kolkhozes in the soviet Union.
The Chemical Industry at the time proposed a growing range of products for the vineyard: fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides weed killers and other disease-control spraying products. But modernity was unevenly distributed and rural France was poor and underequipped in terms of machines and tractors to pull the spraying units. Problem solved: The spraying machines were adapted to be pulled by horses... Everything seemed bright and shiny and unsuspecting growers not only heavily saturated their vineyard and soil, but sowed the seeds of possible future professional diseases following their careless exposure to these products. The public was unaware then of the health risks of such heavily-dosed sprayings.
Productivist agriculture was the trend, and it applied to vinification techniques and tools. A few big players, followed by the young crowd of burgeoning cooperatives were vying for wine-for-the-masses market, generating big investments in shiny new facilities, press lines and cement vats. The market changed, the country needed big volumes of cheap wine for its booming cities. All the while in the background, the French University Research Centers were making the first steps to develop the biotech tools that would give way to our modern additives.
But at odds with this productivist ideology, counter-revolutionaries were discreetly at work : Vinification was until then a still mostly mysterious process, where empirical, inherited practices were the norm. The great advances in the understanding of vinification and of what makes a great wine were not made by the research labs, but by two passionated individuals roughly at this time, in the 1950s':
Emile Peynaud (1912-2004) in the Bordeaux region, determined through his research the optimal fruit ripeness, the proper use of crushing and maceration, temperature control and the importance of malolactic fermentation.
Jules Chauvet (1905-1989) in Beaujolais studied indigenous yeasts, carbonic maceration, malic metabolism and also how all of this transforms in subtle aromas in the glass. His tasting notes are considered a mine of informations and he designed the INAO tasting glass that we all take for granted.
Both played an important role in the coming-of-age of our modern relation to wine.